Impasse Over Iran Nuclear Talks Sets Off International Scramble to Save Accord

WASHINGTON — Three weeks ago, in a show of both good faith and diplomatic pressure, the United States offered to rejoin nuclear talks with Iran. The double-edged overture fell flat: Iran refused to meet without first receiving financial incentives, and the Biden administration made clear, as the White House national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, put it, that “the ball is in their court.”

That set off a new rush among world powers to resuscitate a 2015 nuclear accord that the United States exited three years after negotiating it, leaving Iran to steadily violate the terms of the deal.

Diplomats from Britain, France and Germany have since urged Iran to accept a joint European-American invitation on Feb. 18 to begin informal negotiations. Officials from China and Russia have taken a more sympathetic approach in asking Tehran in recent days to return to talks. President Hassan Rouhani of Iran discussed the delicate diplomacy in a phone call with Prime Minister Boris Johnson of Britain on Wednesday and President Emmanuel Macron of France last week.

“We have to use this window of opportunity,” Josep Borrell Fontelles, the European Union’s top foreign policy official, told an Atlantic Council forum on Feb. 23.

Without two rounds of shuttle diplomacy by Rafael Grossi, the director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, the accord may well have fallen apart. By persuading Iran last month to continue allowing some inspections of its nuclear facilities, experts said, Mr. Grossi kept Tehran from crossing a diplomatic red line.

Wary of the United States again reneging on its diplomatic assurances, Iran’s leaders have insisted they will not go back to the nuclear negotiating table until President Biden begins lifting harsh sanctions that the Trump administration imposed when it withdrew from the deal in May 2018.

“America was first in breaking with the agreement and it should be the first to return to it,” Mr. Rouhani said on Wednesday during a cabinet meeting in Tehran.

However, he added: “America should know that we are ready to implement the agreement. We are ready to implement it full in return for full and parts in return for parts. We are ready to return to our full commitments for their full return or part of our commitments for their partial return.”

Mr. Biden has his own reasons for taking a wait-and-see approach toward negotiations.

He appears torn between allies in Europe and critics in Congress over broadening the nuclear accord to also limit Iran’s ballistic missiles program and its support for proxy militias across the Middle East.

Though many senior administration officials had negotiated the nuclear deal while working for President Barack Obama, and still support it, they also say they are unwilling to compromise further — particularly as Iran persistently tests Mr. Biden’s limits.

“Can you assure us that we’re not going to make concessions just to get a meeting?” Representative Brad Sherman, Democrat of California, asked Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken on Wednesday during a House hearing, referring to the nuclear accord, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.

“I can,” Mr. Blinken responded.

“Do we expect that before we give them sanctions relief that they will verifiably either be in full compliance with the J.C.P.O.A. or be on a negotiated path toward full compliance?” Mr. Sherman asked.

“Yes,” Mr. Blinken said.

The demands for a broader accord to address other Iranian threats echoes the Trump administration’s goals of a pressure campaign against Tehran. But Mr. Biden’s pursuit to “lengthen and strengthen” the deal is also calculated to assuage Democratic critics of the 2015 accord.

Among them is Senator Bob Menendez, Democrat of New Jersey and chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, who oversees the State Department and the approval process for presidential nominees to work there.

“Iran’s continuous engagement on so many other fronts — on the ballistic missiles, on the destabilization of the region, on its continuing advocacy for terrorism to its proxies — you know that just going back to the J.C.P.O.A. is really a difficult proposition,” Mr. Menendez told reporters in Washington on Tuesday.

Other Senate Democrats, however, have proposed legislation to address Iran’s missile program and proxy support “after such time that all sides return to their commitments”
under the nuclear accord.

Iran’s leaders have warned that expanding the accord is a nonstarter, and European diplomats worry that broaching it in the delicate negotiations will scuttle the entire effort.

“Once we do the first step, then we can continue, or start talking about other pending issues,” Mr. Borrell said at the Atlantic Council, a policy center. “But if you start talking about the pending issues in the beginning, you will never restart.”

Trita Parsi, the founder of the National Iranian American Council and executive vice president of the Quincy Institute, a policy center that advocates military restraint, said both Iran and the United States would “have to swallow some pride and pay a political cost” if negotiations were to restart.

“And the longer they wait, the higher that cost will be,” Mr. Parsi wrote in an analysis published on Feb. 28.

Iran’s latest breach of the nuclear deal came on Feb. 23, when Tehran formally prohibited the International Atomic Energy Agency from conducting snap inspections of at least some Iranian nuclear sites.

Mr. Grossi rushed in to negotiate a three-month stopgap, during which Iran will give inspectors some access to its sites as diplomats try to rekindle negotiations. After Mr. Grossi’s second meeting with Iranian officials in two weeks, European diplomats announced they would hold off, “for now,” on formally rebuking Iran’s refusal to allow snap inspections.

Mr. Grossi’s 90-day window will close in late May — just weeks before Iran holds elections in June to replace Mr. Rouhani.

Bound by term limits from remaining in office, Mr. Rouhani oversaw the signing of the 2015 agreement that had represented a diplomatic breakthrough after years of cold relations between Iran and the United States. It had required Mr. Rouhani to persuade Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, to resist opposition from his country’s hard-liners and negotiate with the world powers to lift international economic sanctions against Iran’s economy.

The accord had secured for Tehran billions of dollars in sanctions relief before the Trump administration reneged, shutting down Iran’s oil exports and sending its weakened economy into a tailspin. That reinforced Tehran’s suspicion that dealing with the United States was a mistake.

Yet it is widely believed, by diplomats and experts alike, that Mr. Rouhani and Iran’s foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, want to secure sanctions relief by getting nuclear negotiations well on their way before Iran’s change of power that is expected to install a more hard-line government by late summer.

Even small steps toward rapprochement have proved difficult.

On Tuesday, Tehran responded to Mr. Blinken’s demand for the release of Americans being held in Iran by opening the door to direct negotiations with the United States on a prisoner exchange. At least four American dual citizens are being held by Iran, which has a long history of detaining foreigners and dual citizens on bogus charges of espionage and swapping them for Iranians incarcerated abroad.

An Iranian government spokesman, Ali Rabiei, said the impasse over the nuclear accord should not delay a prisoner swap. “We can discuss all the prisoners at one time and resolve this issue,” Mr. Rabiei told journalists in Tehran.

Hours later, in Washington, Mr. Blinken rebuked Tehran by issuing new travel restrictions against two members of Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps for human rights abuses against Iranian protesters in 2019 and 2020.

Last month, the United States lifted travel restrictions on Iranian officials visiting the United Nations headquarters in New York, and dropped its demand that the United Nations Security Council enforce international sanctions against Iran. Both were presented to Tehran as good-faith efforts.

Despite the impasse, American and European diplomats said informal talks could begin in coming weeks. When they do, it is expected that the United States and Iran could agree to take simultaneous steps toward coming back into compliance with the 2015 accord.

Farnaz Fassihi contributed reporting from New York.

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